As famous as Times Square was for jazz, and as important as Greenwich Village was for folk, the three miles between Broadway and Bleecker Streets were separated as far as Moonachie, New Jersey and the actual moon until recently, when John McEuen brought his banjo and his friend David Amram to play the Iridium, for many years home base to Les Paul.
McEuen, a world-class multi-string player and producer (the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Grammy-Award-winning producer for Steve Martin for example), and multi-instrumentalist David Amran, (French Horn, piano, pennywhistle, percussion; with Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Willie Nelson, Leonard Bernstein, Tito Puente, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Aaron Copland) stood at Les Paul’s mic (the electric guitar, multi-tracking) and turned the Iridium upside down.
The usual Iridium audience may have had trouble identifying a mandolin, but during McEuen’s set they had no difficulty identifying with a mando. McEuen gave an insiders’-history lesson about how the NGDB’s classic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” became a Top 10 hit after playing the gym at an NYC Catholic girls school. David Amram went into a good five-minute rap before “Pull My Daisy.” His longtime manager, Doug Yeager, told me that not only was the improv poem off the cuff, but that Amran could pull it off in five or six languages: “If we were in Berlin, he’d be doing it in German,” Yeager said, and I believe him. Les Paul had a mischievous sense of humor and McEuen’s witty commentary fit the stage perfectly. After an excellent solo rendition of “99 Years and One Dark Day” by accompanist Matt Cartsonis, McEuen deadpanned the audience: “We can’t really follow that, so we’re going to just stand here for a few minutes.”
Modesty aside, McEuen can lead or follow anything. Whether on banjo or guitar, vocals or harmony, his new takes on “Keep on the Sunny Side of Life” (written 115 years ago), Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” and Michael Nesmith’s “Some of Shelly’s Blues” kept the Great White Way lit up all the way down to Greenwich Village.